Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On the Record: Backgrounding Business

Learning how to learn about a business can come in handy.

In some ways, businesses are like individuals: They own things (property records), they pay taxes (property-tax records) and they sue people or get sued (court records), and they can go broke (bankruptcy filings).

Beyond that, they also leave special paper trails with:

-- Licensing agencies, agencies than permit corporations (Secretary of State's office)
-- Regulatory agencies (OSHA, EPA, FAA, FTC, state and local agencies, etc.)
-- Agencies that contract for products and services, or that grant business loans (SBA, CDBG, etc.)

What you can learn may also depend on what kind of business you're investigating.

Privately held businesses are generally owned by families or small groups of individual investors, who share the profits and the risks. They do not sell shares to the public. Typicially, you'll find less public information about them, although you may find plenty through trade or business sites, such as Hoover's.com. (Its free service offers basic info and links to news and press releases. Try searching for Mars, Incorporated. The pay service will look up company's public paper trail.)

Publicly traded companies share the profits and risks with shareholders, who buy and sell shares to the public in stock markets. To protect shareholders from being swindled, such companies are regulated by federal and state governments.

The federal regulator is the Securities and Exchange Commission, which To requires such companies to file a whole string of public reports, which can tell investors -- and reporters -- a lot about the way the company operates. You'll find annual and quarterly financial reports, announcements of major changes in ownership, etc.

In Montana, the State Auditor regulates companies that sell securities (stocks and bonds) and insurance. The auditor occasionally investigates wrongdoing and can instigate prosecutions through the courts.

Nonprofit companies or organizations are a different breed of business altogether. Most are exempt from paying taxes, and in return for that special treatment they must file an annual report (IRS Form 990 or PF990) that outlines what they do, how much money they take in and spend, who runs the show, etc.

Companies are required to keep copies of these reports for inspection but you can also order them from the IRS or find them online through an outfit called Guidestar.

On the Record: Backgrounding Individuals

You may be surprised to find at what you'll find on Google, Lexis-Nexis, Facebook, etc., but don't overlook public records when you're investigating an individual. Here are some public records that may prove helpful:

Birth records (Montana makes them available 30 years after a birth.)

School records (Dates attended, degrees conferred, theses, dissertations. No grades.)

Property records (Deeds, property assessments, taxes paid and unpaid.)

Marriage and divorce records (You can see a marriage license but not the application. Divorces are civil action.)

Bankruptcies (Individuals have to file with a U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Lots of detail here about what people own and owe.)

Driver's licenses and other licenses (Hunting, fishing, etc. You may not get to see the application but you should be able to find out if a person is license for these activities.)

Professional license information (Most states keep these records for doctors, nurses, lawyers, public school teachers, pilots, cosmetologists, etc. You can find out if someone is in fact licensed.)

Court records (Criminal and civil histories -- convictions, judgments, complaints, depositions, etc.)

Some military records (Dates of services, rank, medals and commendations.)

Concealed weapons permits (Check with the Sheriff's Department.)

Some lending information (UCC filings document some loans. Check with the county clerk and recorder, Secretary of State.)

Salary information for public employees (Check with the human services officer in the agency that employs them.)

Voter registration information. (You can also find out if someone voted but not how they voted.)

Public officials' voting records (Local govt. minutes, legislative and congressional journals, Project Vote Smart, etc.)

State and federal campaign donations (Check followthemoney.org for donations to state candidates. Check opensecrets.org for contributions to federal candidates.)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Make Readers See

Here's an old post, but a goodie.

It's not easy getting busy people to read longer stories. You have to make it worth their time.

Make readers join you in solving a mystery, in sharing a vicitim's pain, in exposing an outrage, in puzzling over what makes the powerful tick. Make them wonder if there isn't a better way to solve problems that threaten their safety, lighten their wallets or disturb their peace.

Show rather than tell.

Make readers sense the mystery, feel the outrage, smell the danger, hear the disturbance, sting from loss. It's not easy to write pictures into readers heads. It take just the right words, and less is usually more. It takes pacing (short sentences, like short breaths, shows tension) and a deft hand on the zoom lens (zoom in to focus closely on an individual example; zoom out to show a problem's widespread effect). It takes an ear for the sounds of words that click together to make an emotional effect.

You'll probably never do it well unless you read journalists who do it well, journalists like Jim Sheeler, Julia Keller, Kim Murphy, Walt Bogdanich, Abigail Goldman and Nancy Cleeland.

They'll make it worth your while.

Profiles: Portraits in Words

Profiles can round out good beat coverage. But doing them well takes time and an artist's eye for telling detail.You also need a good reason -- a news peg -- to do them.

Good profile subjects are often people wielding great power or those about to wield it. Sometimes they're about quiet people doing remarkable things behind-the-scenes. Other times, they're about ordinary people whose stories illuminate great public problems.

Good profiles put their subjects in the context of the news and reveal their passions or motives. The best ones look at their subjects from lots of perspectives and aren't shy about focusing on flaws as well as strengths.

Poor profiles are superficial, vague and distant. The worst are hero-worshipping puff pieces that seem as if the subject paid the reporter to write them. Nobody's perfect, as they say. And in public affairs, it's a rare leader who climbs to prominence without making enemies as well as friends.

Complexity is what makes people truly interesting, anyway. Capturing it requires intelligence and flair -- and lots of sources.

You're not a judge; you're not the jury

Believe it or not, some of the people arrested and charged with committing crimes are not guilty.

So play it straight in police stories. Dont' write that a Missoula man has been arrested for robbing the bank. If he's yet to be charged, say he's been arrested in connection with the robbery at the bank.

If prosecutors decide to charge him, then lead with that: A Missoula man has been charged with robbing the bank.

I'd be wary even after a judge or jury had decided the case. For instance, I wouldn't write that a bank robber has decided to appeal his sentence. Unless he's confessed to the crime, or the evidence is overwhelming, I'd say a man convicted of robbing the bank has decided to appeal his sentence.

It's a sublte but imporant point.